This column has been in the works since I started writing Super Saturday. While I will get into the issues with ‘X-Men’– and there are quite a few– I will go on the record as saying that this might be the most IMPORTANT cartoon in Saturday morning history. (It’s debatable, I admit.) But I fully believe that the first ‘X-Men’ movie probably never would have been made had it not been for the massive success of the cartoon. And if the first ‘X-Men’ movie hadn’t been made, the steady deluge of superhero movies that followed wouldn’t have happened. If those movies hadn’t been made, it’s very likely that Marvel Comics would have gone out of business, as it was already facing bankruptcy before licensing these movies saved their bacon. And of course, had that happened, there wouldn’t be a Marvel Cinematic Universe. Is that overselling the ‘X-Men’ cartoon? No, I actually don’t think so. Had this show not existed, it would have set off a chain of events that would have resulted in a pop culture landscape far, far different than the one we know today.
So, speaking of ‘X-Men’… let’s get to it! (If you want to read about the X-Men’s prior cartoon appearances, check out last week’s column.)
Margaret Loesch spent years working with Stan Lee in an effort to bring the X-Men to the small screen as an animated series, including guest-appearances on ‘Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends’ and the “Pryde of the X-Men” pilot, which was not picked up to series. But in 1990, she was made the head of FOX’s new kids division and that was all she needed. In addition to ‘X-Men’, she brought another sensation to television, ‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’.
By the time the ‘X-Men’ series went into development, the comics had just soared to new, even higher levels of popularity, fueled by the art of Jim Lee who redesigned the costumes of the entire team… or rather teams. After the original X-Men, who had been operating as X-Factor were reintegrated into the X-Men, the roster had so many members that they were split into two teams. Lee drew the exploits of the “Blue Team” in his brand new comic series, simply entitled ‘X-Men’, while fellow hot artist, Wilce Portacio illustrated ‘Uncanny X-Men’ which starred the “Gold Team.” Lee’s ‘X-Men’ #1 is the best-selling single comic of all time, selling millions of copies.
Unfortunately, Marvel Productions, which had made ‘Spider-Man AHAF’ and “Pryde of the X-Men” had been dissolved by this time, so the animation was taken on by Saban Entertainment and Graz Entertainment. Saban was still fairly early in its lifespan, and Graz was almost completely new. This resulted in numerous delays and production issues for ‘X-Men’. For starters, Graz worked far, far too slowly, and was unable to deliver ‘X-Men’ on time. And when it did deliver episodes, they were riddled with animation problems.
Helping Loesch bring the ‘X-Men’ to animated life was Eric Lewald who was hired to be the executive story producer, even though he was not a comic fan and was not familiar with the ‘X-Men’. Nevertheless, Lewald hired his wife Julia, who was also not a comic reader, as a writer. Luckily, the other creators brought on board were fans. Will Meugniot was appointed supervising producer, and Larry Houston served as a director. Both Meugniot and Houston previously worked on “Pryde of the X-Men,” ‘Spider-Man AHAF’, and ‘The Incredible Hulk’. Houston also worked on the solo ‘Spider-Man’ cartoon that was syndicated in 1981.
‘X-Men’ was already touted as hitting FOX Kids in the fall of 1992, but ultimately, FOX chose to only air two episodes as a sneak preview, and announced that the series wouldn’t arrive in earnest until spring.
Thus, “Night of the Sentinels” parts 1 and 2 were the only two episodes to air at first, and they were pretty sloppy. (Among the problems, Jubilee’s fireworks powers resembled sperm cells. You can’t make this stuff up.) The TV show featured characters from both the “Blue” and “Gold” teams, mostly wearing their new Jim Lee-designed costumes (except for Wolverine). This team consisted of Beast, Cyclops, Gambit, Rogue, Storm, and Wolverine.
Jean Grey was featured in the opening credits, although she was more of a backup character in earlier episodes. (For some reason, FOX insisted she wear her hair in a ponytail, instead of loose like she did in the comics.) Eventually, though, she would become possibly the most important character on the show, at least for a while.
Beast was also intended to only be a sporadic supporting character, but the creators liked him so much, that when the series was said and done, he appeared in the second-most episodes of any character next to Wolverine.
In the comics, Jubilee was a sassy, street smart character, but on the cartoon, she was used in the “Kitty Pryde” role as a more helpless, frightened victim in need of rescue.
In the first episode, the team included a character named Morph, who basically invented just for the show and for the purpose of dying in the show’s first storyline. He was mostly original, but his shapeshifting powers were similar to the non-mutant character Changeling who had appeared in the comic books in the ’60s, having impersonated Prof. X for a while and being assassinated in that form. (This explanation allowed the real Prof. X to “return from the dead.”) His name couldn’t be “Changeling” because at the time, DC’s character Gar Logan went by that name. Now, that character is best-known as Beast-Boy.
Morph was used in place of Thunderbird (who appeared in the opening of ‘X-Men’, but never in an actual episode). Original plans were for Thunderbird to appear and die in the second episode, just as he had in the comics, but the producers decided it was a bad idea to kill off a minority character, so Caucasian Morph was invented for the sole purpose of dying on the show’s first adventure. (He wound up coming back and playing a larger role in later seasons.) The show’s creators didn’t really try with him. He wasn’t given a unique costume, just a generic team uniform with a leather jacket over it. They didn’t even include him in the opening credits. But in true Mary Sue fashion, Morph was described as being Wolverine’s best friend, and the only person that could make him laugh. (*GROAN*)
Early on, Stan Lee hoped to act as the series’ showrunner, but he wanted the show to more closely mirror the ‘X-Men’ comics he had written in the ’60s, and for the characters to be teens as he’d written them. But the show’s actual creators wanted to reflect the ’70s era of the comics, when the book had been such a sales powerhouse and had a more intense tone.
Lee also wanted to appear on camera to narrate ‘X-Men’. He had previously provided voice-over narration for ‘Spider-Man AHAF’ and ‘The Incredible Hulk’, as well as “Pryde of the X-Men.” Loesch actually agreed to let Lee appear at the beginning of each episode to explain the storyline and characters, and again at the end to wrap up each episode and explain the “message” of each story. (Think Bill Cosby on ‘Fat Albert’.) The other creators had to argue with her to drop Lee, as they wanted ‘X-Men’ to appeal to an older audience, citing ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ which also aired on FOX, as an example of modern animated storytelling.
Graz was forced to fix their sloppy animation, so the two ‘Night of the Sentinels’ episodes did not re-air in the same condition they were in the first time. (No more sperm explosions.) But even so, the first season of ‘X-Men’ was rough. The animation remained pretty bad– not even as good as the ‘Spider-Man AHAF’ which had aired a decade earlier! And there were numerous continuity issues as episodes were not finished in the right order, and were simply aired in as they arrived.
On the plus side, it didn’t matter. ‘X-Men’ was a smash right off the bat!
Season 1 pitted the X-Men against The Sentinels and their creators Bolivar Trask and Henry Peter Gyrich, Magneto, Sabretooth, The Morlocks, Juggernaut, Apocalypse, Mystique, Avalanche, Pyro, and The Blob. Featured in guest roles were Archangel, Colossus, and Bishop.
Season 1 culminated with a two-part adaptation of the classic comic book story “Days of Future Past,” although this version was modified heavily, specifically by incorporating newer character Bishop. The first season borrowed many elements from the comics, but except for “Days of Future Past” did not adapt specific comic book stories, but that would change with time.
The poor animation problems continued into Season 2 and delays plagued Season 3, as some episodes of that season didn’t air as part of that season and were instead peppered into Season 4. It was kind of a mess. But the quality of animation steadily improved, particularly with Season 3 and beyond.
And despite these problems, ‘X-Men’ was a hit with viewers. The release of the show coincided with the release of Toy Biz’s ‘X-Men’ toy line, which positively exploded with the popularity of the series.
One final note, when it was first released, the show was just called ‘X-Men’, the same as Jim Lee’s comic book. But over the years, it has been commonly referred to as ‘X-Men: The Animated Series’, perhaps to differentiate it from other projects including the popular films, and the comic books.
Stay tuned, as this is just the first chapter of the ‘X-Men’ story. In the meantime, the original series is available to stream on Disney+.